Photo Courtesy Ellie Wang/UCSD Guardian
After spending a week on the road in Missouri, the UC San Diego Tritons men’s volleyball team returned home for a pair of matches against two top-15 opponents. In a pair of closely fought contests, the Tritons took down the Princeton Tigers in four sets, 23–25, 25–20, 26–24, 25–19, while falling to the Concordia University, Irvine Eagles in four sets, 21–25, 25–19, 16–25, 19–25.
UCSD came into the week fresh off of a three-game winning streak, and with a top-15 ranking for the first time since 2013. Their mettle certainly was tested during the last week, with mixed results. While the team showed resilience against Princeton after falling behind after the first set, the intensity and size of CCI proved too much for the Tritons.
“[Concordia Irvine] always plays with a lot of energy and a lot of passion on the court, and they’re very scrappy defensively,” said UCSD head coach Kevin Ring after the loss. “I think we have another gear or two that we can play on our side, so credit them, they won the match, but we certainly did some things that hurt our chances.”
In the first set against the Eagles, the Tritons fell behind early, going down 6–1. Despite 2 kills from sophomore middle blocker Shane Benetz and 2 blocks from redshirt sophomore middle blocker Gabe Avillion, 4 missed serves and 4 missed spikes for the remainder of the set kept UCSD from sustaining a long run. But thanks to 5 missed serves from CCI, the Tritons found themselves down just 17–21 near the end of the set. Kills from junior outside hitter Wyatt Harrison and junior outside hitter Kyle McCauley brought the score to within 2 points, prompting at CCI timeout, ultimately failing to mount the comeback.
The second set went differently for UCSD as the Tritons fought to match the intensity coming from across the court. McCauley unleashed 9 kills, accounting for 4 of the last 8 Tritons points to finish the set. Avillion continued to log major time in the second set as well, rewarding head coach Kevin Ring with 4 kills, including his third stuff block off the match to give UCSD a 24–18 lead and putting an exclamation point on the 5–0 run before a missed serve by the Eagles ended the set and knotted the match at 1–1.
After keeping things close early, a challenge that went the way of the Eagles seemed to suck the air out of the arena. From that point on, CCI outscored UCSD 14–7 to win the set 25–16, with plenty of energy to go around. The nine-point lead the Eagles had by the end of the set was the largest of the match for either team.
Heading into the fourth set, Harrison pulled his teammates into a huddle to calm them down and prepare them for a comeback, but CCI’s energy continued to reign supreme. After a wild save from Walbrecht that led to a gym-rocking kill from McCauley to tie the fourth set a 13–13, the Eagles never lacked focus.
In the first set, Princeton showed off heavy hitters and big-time blockers on the front line. After going back and forth early on, UCSD tied things up at 6–6 and held onto the lead for the majority of the set, largely thanks to big-play upfront from Benetz and sophomore middle blocker Logan Clark. The pair combined for 5 of the next 6 points after the score was tied, including 3 blocks, giving the hosting team a 13–9 lead, which forced a Tigers timeout.
Even with the commanding early lead, UCSD let a few long rallies slip away, allowing Princeton to hang around. Trailing 21–18, the Tigers called another timeout, this time with better results. Out of the break, Princeton erased the deficit with a 3–0 run, then, after a consequential UCSD timeout, rattled off a pair of back-to-back blocks to take the lead for the first time since the 6–6 tie early on, winning the set with an ace.
After the collapse at the end of the first set, the Tritons buckled down. Three missed serves from the Tigers and three kills from McCauley to start the set gave UCSD a commanding four-point lead at 8–4 that Princeton struggled to recover from. After the Tigers threatened a comeback after cutting the deficit to 2 points, McCauley showed his range on the attack, deftly tipping his fifth kill of the set over the block to bring the lead up to 3 points before a booming kill off of the back line brought the score to 14–10.
After a UCSD miscommunication allowed Princeton back into the match late in the set, head coach Kevin Ring called a timeout, resetting the momentum. Benetz rewarded the move, unleashing a kill and a block on consecutive points to give the Tritons back their four-point lead. Benetz and Clark each added a point before McCauley slammed the door shut with his seventh kill of the set, giving his team a 25–20 lead over the Tigers to tie the match at 1–1.
In the third set, both teams struggled to find a rhythm on the attack. Missed serves and miscommunications kept the Tritons from capitalizing on all of their chances to go on runs for much of the set, and similar ails befell the Tigers, which meant no team had more than a two-point lead for the entire set.
The desperation from both sides began to fill the gym late in the set. After McCauley tied the set at 19–19 after pulling a hard kill down the line, Princeton started what would be a chain of timeouts. The Tigers scored 2 straight points out of their timeout, taking a 21–19 lead that prompted a Tritons timeout. The UCSD timeout resulted in a 2–0 run, knotting the score at 23–23. After going down 23–24 on a kill from Princeton’s Nelson off of the body of McCauley, the Tritons rattled off three-straight points, even weathering a Princeton timeout, to take the set, with the exclamation mark coming from a stifling block in the middle of the court by Benetz.
After going back and forth like usual for the first 10 points, UCSD separated themselves in a flurry to set the tone in what would be the final set. After Princeton tied things up at 5–5, two kills from McCauley and 3 blocks from Clark got the fans and the bench into the game. A block from senior setter Connor Walbrecht forced the Tigers to take a timeout and lick their wounds. But even the timeout couldn’t stop the relatively small crowd’s energy.
The officials could though. After Princeton knotted the score at 14–14, the UCSD Pepbandpep band was charged with a penalty, as one band member was publicly scolded by the PA announcer for using an illegal megaphone to chastise the opposing team’s server. From that point on, even without the help of the megaphone, the band made itself a factor for the rest of the way. After the Tigers unleashed an 8–2 run, Ring called a timeout. Coming out of it, the Tritons went on an 8–2 run of their own. After Nelson brought Princeton back within 4 points, 2 kills from Harrison capped off a terrific match for UCSD against another ranked opponent.
The Tritons will have a chance at revenge against CCI on Tuesday, Feb. 4, when they head to Irvine to take on the Eagles on their own court at 7 pm.